“What a terrific morning. Can’t you feel it? There’s just something magical in the air.”
Skullet grinned and clapped his hands, looking as if he wanted Owen to nod in agreement. Owen shot back an icy stare, refusing to even blink. Skullet took a seat on the nearby folding chair and opened a brown paper bag.
“Normally, I always eat a healthy breakfast. They say it’s the most important meal of the day. I don’t want to taint my body with all those sugars and chemicals, but when something this amazing occurs, I think it’s a sign it’s okay to indulge.”
Skullet removed a powdered donut from the brown paper bag. Tiny white flakes tumbled from its side as he tore off a chunk. Before chomping down, he paused, taking a deep sniff. His face blanched, scrunching into a frown. Without taking a bite, he placed the donut back into the bag.
“Seems like I wasn’t the only one who had an accident this morning. What a stench.”
It was true. At some point during the night, Owen had just let go. Since he was unable to lift himself, the filth had smeared across his bottom like an erupting volcano. And it pretty much had the same consistency as lava. Owen guessed he should’ve felt revolted, but it compared little to the other aches racking his body.
“Anyhow, you’re going to love this. I still can’t believe my luck. Sometimes the universe just works like that. Everything gelling together in perfect harmony.”
Skullet disappeared behind Owen, returning a moment later with a can of deodorizer. He circled the chair, spraying a vast mist. Owen began to wheeze underneath his duct tape gag, struggling to breathe. Skullet yanked the tape covering Owen’s lips with a single rip.
“Water,” Owen gasped. He ran his tongue across the exterior of his mouth and tasted something moist. Saliva or even blood, he didn’t care, lapping it up. His mouth felt like sandpaper, and his spit had the consistency of bubblegum.
“I understand you’re excited, but hold on a sec.”
“Water,” Owen groaned louder.
“We’ll get to that, first listen. So I was driving down the freeway when a bright orange Camaro blasted its way into traffic, weaving all over the place. Not that I have high expectations from anyone who drives those silly things. I mean, the wide grill makes it look like the car is sneering. That alone says a lot about the kind of person who would buy one.”
“No, please,” Owen moaned.
“I know, I had the exact same reaction. This hotrod even tried to pass in the right-hand lane. But I got him. Boxed him in beside a truck. He was stuck tailgating my car. It gave me enough time to look him up in the folio.”
“That’s right, you wouldn’t know about the folio,” Skullet interrupted. “It’s really neat. Anytime I have an encounter, I scribble it down in the folio. In the old days, it was a real pain, I used a binder and it was all unorganized. But now, I have everything in a database on my cell phone. Even have one of those voice search functions, so I told it to find an orange Camaro, and I struck gold.”
“Water,” Owen said, almost screaming the word.
“Oh yeah, of course. You must be awfully thirsty,” Skullet replied, as though hearing Owen’s request for the first time. He got up and returned with a bottled water. Owen took a hefty swig as Skullet poured some into his mouth.
“M-more,” Owen stammered.
“Easy there. You have to take it slow, otherwise you’ll get sick. Trust me, I’ve seen it before. Now just listen. So I look up the license plate in the folio and, bingo, this is hotrod’s third strike. That means he’s fair game. Now, most times I lose them. It’s usually too conspicuous to get into a high-speed chase, plus it’s also dangerous. Sometimes children are in the cars.”
“Heaven forbid,” Owen muttered.
“I know. But this time, the stars must’ve been aligned, since hotrod pulled off at the very next exit, and I had no problem following him a few blocks to a deli. I got a real good look as he went inside for breakfast. So when he came out, I pretended to trip, spilling my coffee all over him.”
“That’ll sure show him. Can I get more water?”
“Oh yes, my child. Also, I need you to take these.”
Skullet was holding two white pills. Owen opened his mouth and Skullet dropped them along with a mouthful of water. Owen considered spitting them up, but downed them in a single swallow. Not only was the water too delicious to waste, but he figured any poison would be a pleasant relief. Somehow, he doubted he’d be that lucky.
“Terrific story,” Owen said, before launching into a coughing fit. One of the pills got stuck for a second while working its way down his throat.
“Oh, isn’t it? I always carry a drink while in public and anytime it’s necessary, I spill it all over the culprit. Someone cuts in line, boom, I’m there like a tidal wave. But nobody really knows, since I’m like a ninja, acting all sorry and innocent. Sometimes I even take a picture, pretending I’ll pay for their dry cleaning. Of course, that never happens. The photo goes right into the folio.”
“Must be some collection.” Owen wondered how many other poor lives had been ruined by this lunatic.
“Yes, it’s like a second job, but if I don’t catalogue the abuses of the world, nobody will. You only live once, yet your soul is immortal.”
“Well, after you spilling that coffee, I’m sure he’ll be a better driver from now on.”
“Don’t be silly. He won’t be a better driver, no. That’s because he won’t be driving anymore.”
Skullet let the comment hang in the air, pouring another sip of water into Owen’s mouth.
“What did you do? Cut his brake lines? Cripple him? Or did you tie him up in one of these damn chairs?”
“I thought you’d be thrilled, Owen. There’s one less menace on the road today,” Skullet said, sounding honestly confused that Owen wasn’t enthralled by it.
“What was in those pills?”
“They’ll help you. Don’t you understand? All of this is to help you.”
“What are they?”
“Blood thinners, if you have to know. Since you aren’t moving, your blood is beginning to clot. You’ve probably heard stories about obese people having a heart attack after a long airplane trip. All those sedentary hours wreak havoc on the body. But I thought you of all people would know that. It’s what killed your mother.”
“Cancer. It was cancer that killed her, you creep.”
“No, she died of a heart attack. You literally broke her heart.”
Owen didn’t belabor the point. Sure, a heart attack had provided the final blow, but his mother had died long before that. It all started with dad and when the X-ray confirmed a dime-sized mass in his lungs. He’d been wheezing for quite some time, occasionally coughing up blood. Owen’s father shared his wife’s stubborn nature and refused to see a doc. Not until the pain invaded his back, making it impossible to unload the trucks anymore. But work would be the least of his worries.
His mother had seen firsthand the devastating result of the spreading disease. All the invasive tests, therapies, and drugs that pained his dad more than the cancer itself. They even stuck a tube up his penis after he’d admitted to peeing blood; as though his death sentence wasn’t insult enough. And three months after that X-ray, he died. Tuesday, June 12th. He was 47. Owen, 21.
It’d be another five years before the same signs spread to his mother. Owen had warned her to quit the cigarettes, but after his father had died, she only smoked more, almost three packs a day. And she’d been eating so much Owen worried she might end up as one of those carnival freaks they showed on daytime talk shows—so fat a crane was needed to get them out of the house.
So when she dropped eighty pounds in two months, Owen knew. His mother wasn’t one to change her habits. That was what he most loathed about her, but it was also what he most adored. She never lost faith in those she loved. Owen couldn’t break her heart. Even after Rachel left, and he lost his job, his mother supported him, allowing him to move back in with her. Up to the very end, she never stopped loving him, not even after she stopped loving herself.
So when his mother said she couldn’t take it anymore, not the constant tests, not the invasive drugs, not the incessant pain, not knowing how it would all end, Owen just nodded his head and agreed.
“Can I have some more water?”
“First, I need you to understand this is for your benefit.”
“Of course, I’ve learned my lesson. You can let me go now.”
“No, you haven’t learned a thing. And you’ll never leave this chair. That’s your punishment for this world. Maybe if you atone, you might have a chance in the next. For you sow wind, and shall reap the whirlwind.”
“Spare me the platitudes.”
“Why? What oath do you follow? Those who stand for nothing, fall for anything.”
“Oh, I do have an oath. Probably the most honest assessment of the human experience, you bastard. Eat, shit, and die.”
“Hey, I’m not the bad guy here. Remember, I’m not the one who took out a life insurance policy on his own mother before torturing her to death. So call me names, but I wouldn’t go looking into any mirrors.”
That blasted insurance policy, Owen cursed. It’d been one of the more scurrilous claims bandied about by the prosecutors. Another in a long line of things that had been “accidentally” leaked to the press and reported without substantiating any of the claims. According to the news, Owen had taken out a new life insurance policy on his mother only months before she died. Once a single source printed the specious story, it’d spread like wildfire across the media landscape.
The worst was when a national talk-radio host portrayed Owen as a symbol of America’s moral decay. His only saving grace was that another scandal broke that day, something to do with a senator who went to séances, and Owen’s story was relegated to a single segment. Still, it was long enough to cement the story about buying life insurance into the public’s mind.
As with all great lies, there had been a kernel of truth. Yes, a new insurance contract had been written up only months before her death. That was undeniable. Still, nobody asked what kind of stupid company would write up a life insurance policy for a woman with stage IV cancer. Certainly not one that was going to stay in business long.
No, what they failed to report was it was a new contract on an old policy. His mother had been insured for years, having taken out a luxury plan when Owen started his own insurance business. It’d been his very first sale, to be precise. The plan had been costly; probably more than she could afford, but after receiving a large lump sum from his father’s death, she’d decided to invest in Owen rather than with some Wall Street crooks.
So when the medical bills kept piling up, and the credit cards maxed out, these monthly life insurance premiums became an issue. Owen had done everything he could to manage her finances, so he’d contacted the life insurance company, hoping to downgrade from the gold plated plan. They hardly hesitated writing up a policy that would save them thousands in the long run. But nobody wanted to read a story about scrimping to pay for medical bills, so instead, he’d become a killer who’d taken out his mother for cold hard cash.
Owen didn’t feel like explaining the finer details to this savage. Plus, he doubted a man who kept a detailed log of everyone who’d ever cut him off in traffic would be open to any discussion.
“I’m freezing,” Owen muttered, wiggling his toes. He could see them moving at the end of his foot, but no longer felt any sensation. They were distant, as though part of someone else’s body. His pinkie toe glowed a dull blue and the others were likewise pale and swollen.
“I wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.” Skullet chuckled while giving Owen’s shoulder a tap.
“That’s the problem. I don’t feel anything. Actually, outside of the cold, it’s not too bad. At least the pain is gone. It only comes when I’m warm.”
Owen watched as the smile washed away from Skullet’s face. The ruse was working. Owen was a salesman and understood the primary rule: know what the customer wanted. And this twisted animal wanted only one thing—to externalize whatever horror haunted his demented brain. Owen planned on using this flaw for his own benefit. He’d do anything to warm up. The ruse worked, since Skullet left for a moment and returned with a blanket.
“I have a confession,” Owen said, as Skullet tucked the blanket around his waist. The toasty cotton felt superb around him.
“What do you wish to confess?”
Owen suppressed a smile. The ruse worked once, so he decided to have another go.
“My mother hated chicken noodle soup,” he said. “Guess that’s why I fed it to her in those final days. She tried to sip up all those warm chunks of pasta, but I made sure she ate every bowl. Enjoyed watching her gag.”
“What are you getting at? Is this a trick?” Skullet grabbed Owen’s swollen foot, giving a firm squeeze. Pain exploded out, forcing Owen to cry out. He bit down and composed his huffing breaths.
“I-I thought you wanted a confession,” Owen stammered.
“Do I look like a priest? Do I?”
“No, if I had to choose, I’d say you look more like a nun.”
“I’ve had enough of your smart-alecky remarks. I was in a terrific mood when I came here. I wanted to share with you, but you just spit on the entire world. Drag it down into your black tar pit and corrode it with rusty nails.”
“Oh, my nails aren’t rusty. I keep them short. I know this terrific pedicurist—”
“Enough, demon,” Skullet shrieked.
“Mind getting me some more water?” Owen replied, but he knew whatever game they were playing had come to its conclusion.
“I said enough.”
“Help, help, HELP!”
Owen pitched his head and screamed at the top his lungs. At best, he hoped Skullet would trade being quiet for another sip of water. At worse, he anticipated another wrenching foot squeeze or painful blow. Either way, he couldn’t stand it anymore and kept yelling for help. Skullet stood without saying anything and crossed out of sight behind him.
Owen was hollering so loudly he didn’t notice Skullet’s return. He was mid-scream when his head slammed against the chair. Before Owen could even inhale, something jammed into his mouth. The straps slapped against his chin, and he realized it was a gag.
Owen wrapped his lips around the rubber ball, attempting to spit it out, but this only seemed to jam the damn thing further into his mouth. There was a sound similar to a rubber band snapping as Skullet tightened the gag. Owen heaved and a splash of warm vomit filled his mouth. But having nowhere to go, it sloshed around for a second, before he was forced to swallow it back down.
“You want a pedicure, then I’ll give you a pedicure.”
Skullet removed a folding knife from his front pocket. Owen wrenched in the chair. There was a clink as Skullet flipped out the blade. Skullet grabbed his right foot, jamming the tip of the knife underneath his big toenail. Owen froze.
“Reap the whirlwind, demon.”
Skullet twisted the blade as though it were a key stuck in a stubborn lock. Owen shrieked, but only a muffled whoop emerged beneath the gag. A trickle of blood splattered down his foot and onto the ottoman. Owen snapped his eyes shut, but being unable to see didn’t make it any less painful. Skullet worked his way through three toes before the pain grew too overwhelming, and Owen passed out.